The Yale Alumni Magazine is owned and operated by Yale Alumni Publications, Inc., a nonprofit corporation independent of Yale University.
The content of the magazine and its website is the responsibility of the editors and does not necessarily reflect the views of Yale or its officers.
Architect Louis I. Kahn told his students, “I ask a brick, ‘What do you want, brick?’”—urging them to attune themselves to the essential nature of architectural materials. Decades later, his illegitimate son Nathaniel Kahn ’85 asks a similar question, pondering the poured-concrete creations of his distant, dead father: “What were you thinking, Lou?”
Nathaniel’s Academy Award-nominated documentary, My Architect, is what Zen practitioners call a koan—a meditation on the unknowable. The film follows Nathaniel’s five-year, round-the-world pursuit of his guarded, nomadic father, who died of a heart attack in a Penn Station men’s room at the age of 73, when Nathaniel was 11. Ostensibly about one of the twentieth century’s most influential architects, the film endeavors to tell less about Kahn’s buildings than it does about the spirits that inhabit them.
Kahn had one wife, two mistresses, and a child by each. The children eventually met after his death. Each hungrily claims a part of Kahn, though his whole being truly belonged to his work. The one structure he was incapable of building was a home.
Nathaniel told an interviewer in 2003 that as a boy he never quite believed his father had died. “I would always look for him in crowds. I’d see a white-haired man turning the corner and think it was maybe him,” he said. Kahn haunts the film in archival footage: drifting through alleys with a cloak draped over his shoulder, stooped, scarred, and silent, burdened with what his son calls a “heaviness of quiet and incompleteness.” When he does speak, it’s in riddles: “What was has always been. What is has always been. What will be has always been.”
It is a murky memoir, seen through window panes, distorted by rain. But what can be contemplated in perfect clarity are his buildings, among them the Salk Institute, the Phillips Exeter Library, the Kimbell Art Museum, the capital complex at Dhaka in Bangladesh, and his two Yale museums, the Art Gallery and the Center for British Art. In between interviews with luminaries, friends, and family, Nathaniel communes with these structures—at one point rollerblading, childlike, on the Salk’s oceanside courtyard. He ogles them, filming them from all angles, attempting to unlock their secrets, often resigning himself to watching them weather the sunset. “If you go into silence, you will hear him,” advises D. V. Doshi, an Indian architect and friend of his father's.
“God is in the work,” Yale professor Vincent Scully tells Nathaniel, contemplating Kahn’s colossal pillars and process-scarred walls. Cold on the outside, Kahn’s paradoxical structures are filled with an almost-divine natural light, which Bangladesh architect Shamsul Wares likens to love. “To love everybody, he sometimes did not see the very closest ones,” consoles Wares. “That is inevitable of a man of his stature.”
At the film’s end, Nathaniel put-puts up a Third World river in search of his Kurtz. There, in Dhaka, he finds a capitol building that is, in a way, a place of worship. Kahn, having been rejected by pragmatic city planners in his efforts to remake Philadelphia, and thwarted in his efforts to build a great synagogue in Jerusalem, found his purpose in the poverty of Dhaka. There, he designed what amounts to a mosque dressed as a parliament complex masked as a monument, layered in sacred spaces and aesthetic ambiguities—a structure for which he paid his life, dying before it was completed.
“Honor the brick. Glorify the brick,” said Kahn. Nathaniel eventually heeds this plea. Although he sheds light on his father’s chronology, quirks, and meandering family tree, he ultimately leaves Kahn’s soul in the exquisite shadows. Like his architecture, Kahn remains enigmatic. The ghosts have not been exorcised. Instead, through Nathaniel’s poignant, personal tribute, they have been given their due.
Richard M. Nixon, a pioneer in political image-making, scripted his greatest moments for display on camera. But Nixon was less a sorcerer who mastered the black arts of image-craft than an uncertain apprentice. The classic example was the photo-op known as the “sea shot.” Recalling pictures of Kennedy at Cape Cod, Nixon decided that he too should be photographed strolling the beach. So one summer day in 1970, after weeks of high-level planning, reporters and photographers were summoned to a picturesque San Clemente bluff near Nixon’s California home. But when the president emerged, the reporters were stunned. “Good Christ,” one remarked, “he’s wearing shoes!” The president, marching stiffly across the sands in trousers and formal shoes, looked not Kennedyesque but like someone trying to look Kennedyesque.
It was a telling moment from a man who over five decades tried continually to reinvent himself.
Today we’re often warned that our leaders are duping us with contrived representations: Bush on the flight deck, Clinton wagging his finger. But the sea shot reminds us that politicians can seldom just foist their images on a passive electorate. Voters have grown wise to the sleights of modern politics and see through the scrim draped before us. We owe our savviness, at least in part, to Nixon and his transparently phony walk on the beach.
Turning Yale into Fiction
Katharine Weber of Bethany, Connecticut, has taught writing in Yale College for seven years. So it was inevitable, she says, that sooner or later she would “appropriate” Yale and New Haven for a book. Last fall, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux published her third novel, The Little Women, a postmodern retelling of Little Women in which two teenaged girls from Manhattan move in with their Yale undergraduate sister after a family dispute. One afternoon at Starbucks on Chapel Street—where, in the novel, the middle sister Joanna works—Weber talked to Mark Alden Branch ’86 about turning campus and city into fiction.
Y: Did your “appropriation” require any research on locations in the city?
W: Well, the sisters lived right down High Street from here. I had a student who lived in one of those apartments before they were renovated, and I asked her if I could come and prowl around. I spent 20 minutes in her apartment, which she shared with two other girls, and it became the apartment in the book. I don’t mean it’s that apartment down to the last teacup, but I just wanted to have a sense of what those apartments were like, and I got one, complete with the cooking odors in the hallways.
Y: And yet some of the places, like the high school that Amy and Joanna attended, were fictional.
W: When something was okay, I named it. If it was not a totally positive report, I made it fictional. I didn’t make the high school Hillhouse or Wilbur Cross, because it was not a flattering portrait. But I had no trouble with the Yankee Doodle, because, well, it’s the Yankee Doodle.
Y: And what about people? Your Professor Baldwin seemed a lot like the late English professor R. W. B. Lewis, right down to the fact that students referred to him as “Colonel Sanders.”
W: The Professor Baldwin character really is Dick Lewis. I wrote it before he died, and I actually gave those pages to his wife, Nancy, for approval. I said to her, “If this makes you uncomfortable, I will change it.” I wrote it as a loving tribute, but I didn’t want to be selfishly appropriating something that could make anyone uncomfortable.
The Mark Frank character [a visiting professor who has an affair with Meg, the oldest sister] is an amalgam of probably ten people I’ve heard of who had affairs with students. I deliberately made him a Brit just to make sure no one could say he was someone here. But since the book was published, every friend in every department of any subject at any university in the country has told me that I must know about “X,” the horrible visiting professor who had the affair with the student.
Y: Why did you decide to set the story here, in New Haven and at Yale?
W: I’ve lived in Bethany for 26 years, so this has been my city. But I was writing about teenagers—and I was taking them out of the familiar environment where they know their way around. I wanted New Haven to be the alien background against which they figure out how to be themselves. I remember the look of New Haven through my eyes as a teenager, and I wanted to capture some of that.
The Man Who Mapped the Brain
Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain—and How It Changed the World
Few times and places seem as schizophrenic as seventeenth-century England. Inspired by the new ideas of Galileo, William Harvey, and Francis Bacon, the natural philosophers of London, Oxford, and Cambridge inaugurated a scientific revolution that helped produce the modern world. Yet they did so amidst cruelty, superstition, plague, civil war, religious excess, royal autocracy, and bloody rebellion, during the quarter-century while Oliver Cromwell’s severed head adorned a pole high atop Westminster Hall.
In Soul Made Flesh, Carl Zimmer, the author of several acclaimed books on evolution and natural history, adroitly captures both sides of England’s “genius century.” As is the case with more than a few scientifically oriented books these days, Zimmer focuses on the life of a single man—Thomas Willis, a provincial theology student-turned-doctor who began his career as a “pisse-prophet” specializing in the color of urine and ended it as England’s most renowned physician.
Willis is far less well known today than his contemporaries, many of whom were his friends: Robert Hooke, Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle, Rene Descartes, Newton, William Harvey, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke, among them. Zimmer sets out to redress this historical wrong, which he blames largely on Willis’s student John Locke—who, in his influential Essay Concerning Human Understanding, dismissed attempts to uncover the “incomprehensible” workings of the mind.
When Willis was born, in 1621, the brain was still conceived of as “a shell of pulsing phlegm encasing empty chambers which whistled with the movement of spirits passing through,” in Zimmer’s elegant prose. By Willis’s death in 1675, the “anatomy of the soul” had been explored and mapped, and the science of neurology—a word Willis coined—rested on solid foundations.
Willis inaugurated his new science by getting his hands dirty. He dismantled many hundreds, possibly thousands, of fish, dogs, sheep, cows, and especially humans. He was the first to glimpse many of the structures featured in anatomy textbooks today; the “circle of Willis,” a blood vessel that encircles the head, commemorates his explorations. His book The Anatomy of the Brain and Nerves, with illustrations by Christopher Wren, was a bestseller throughout England and Europe. A founder of the Royal Academy, Willis was one of the first to proclaim that the only way to understand the afflictions of the brain was to study the actual organ.
Yet Willis remained resolutely a man of his time. His cures, as Zimmer wryly notes, were “generally useless.” He prescribed ground-up millipedes, steel syrups, peony roots, wolf livers, amulets filled with mistletoe. He “claimed success when his patients recovered and escaped blame when they didn’t. If they recuperated, they usually did so in spite of his attentions.” He believed in bloodletting because it allowed the release of sulfurous particles that needed to be vented “like oil from a lamp.” His books are full of speculations about warring souls and aetherial spirits. He was a fine anatomist but no theorist, and the best that can be said of his ideas is that they were less wrong than the ones they replaced.
Intelligent men like Willis and his contemporaries can look pathetic as they try to explain subjects so far beyond their reach. Yet has science changed so much in the three and a half centuries since? Will the most speculative of our sciences today (one thinks of evolutionary psychology, the science of dieting, string theory) someday seem equally fanciful? And how thoroughly have the lessons of even the best science infused contemporary society if in 1999 Texas Republican Tom DeLay, then the majority whip of the U.S. House of Representatives (and now its majority leader), could claim in a speech on the House floor that the Columbine High School massacre occurred “because our school systems teach our children that they are nothing but glorified apes who have evolutionized out of some primordial soup of mud"?
Zimmer dutifully remains in the seventeenth century until the final chapter of his book, when the scene shifts to a neuroimaging lab at Princeton. There a philosopher watches the gaily shimmering colors of a brain scan as a man in an MRI machine contemplates various moral dilemmas. As Zimmer quickly reviews how far neurology has come and how much remains to be learned, the central message of his graceful and intelligent book becomes clear: in many ways we are still in the very earliest stages of our quest to understand the brain.
No Fear of Flying
Dear Mrs. Lindbergh
The Midwest is developing its own style of quietly affecting fiction. Call it fly-over lit. And to a group that includes Kent Haruf’s Plainsong and Charles Baxter’s Saul and Patsy, add Kathleen Hughes’s touching debut novel, Dear Mrs. Lindbergh.
Lifelong Iowan Ruth Gutterson, this book’s protagonist, probably wouldn’t mind the pejorative for the Midwest—the “fly-over states.” After all, her preferred pastime is soaring over her native landscape in an airplane with a view of “endless squares of fresh brown soil with little dots of green.”
Ruth meets her mail-pilot husband, Henry, in the 1920s when he crash-lands his airplane onto her father’s farm. In the aviator version of a pheromonal reaction, “she smelled Henry before she saw him—the oil and gasoline on him.” Early on in their marriage, Ruth serves as Henry’s navigator in their “Jenny” (a Curtiss JN4D, “the Model T” of airplanes). But pregnancy and childbirth soon ground her.
Hughes wisely breaks up Ruth and Henry’s story, which on its own might have become gratingly sentimental, with a mystery set in 1987, when the couple’s two adult children puzzle over their parents' disappearance into thin air. Also interspersed are the letters that Ruth has written to several historical figures, mainly Anne Morrow Lindbergh, navigator for her own pilot husband. The letters set in historical context Ruth’s despair and then resignation at having her wings clipped.
The first missives to Lindbergh are simple fan mail. In one, Ruth issues an invitation to dinner in Cedar Bluff; in another she suggests that the four of them form a “husband/pilot-wife/navigator club.” Darker thoughts slip into later letters, though, often in frantic prose such as “Do you ever wish your mother would speak to you honestly—have you ever felt like her holding her tongue has made things more confusing for you, when they don’t have to be, when you don’t have to be alone, feeling such a way, because you know she’s felt the same way, only she won’t say so, and why?—there’s no good reason.”
Ruth’s personal turbulence reaches its height with the death of her second child. Here and elsewhere, Hughes makes canny use of aviation lingo so that it takes on multiple meanings: When Henry finds Ruth sitting in the Jenny’s cockpit, holding the dead infant, she is calling out, “We’re off the beam. Off the beam?. Altitude!. Altitude!”
That’s about as bumpy as this ride gets. Ultimately, Hughes’s low-key style proves an ideal match for her subject. Like the heartland itself, this novel’s emotional terrain is deceptively flat. But like a plane coming in for a landing, the author’s steady hand reveals a rich and varied landscape.
The Doctors' Plague: Germs, Childbed Fever, and the Strange Story of Ignac Semmelweis
In the mid-nineteenth century, a young woman enters a Vienna hospital to give birth, but things go horribly wrong. Nuland, a National Book Award winner, offers an elegant if sometimes gruesome history of a medical riddle—and of an eccentric physician who learned how to keep doctors from inadvertently killing their patients.
Schmucks with Underwoods: Conversations with Hollywood’s Classic Screenwriters
Screenwriters don’t get much respect. (“Schmucks with Underwoods” was a remark by film executive Jack Warner.) But in this collection of interviews and memoirs, Wilk gives Billy Wilder, Ed McBain, and others a chance to have their say.
Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities
What really goes on inside sororities and why, despite feminism, do women continue to join them? Journalist Robbins spends a year as an undercover coed in an unnamed all-female enclave and, for better and worse, tells all.
Black Titan: A. G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire
In 1996 at the age of 103, Birmingham entrepreneur Arthur George Galston died of a stroke—on his way to the office. His niece and her daughter tell the story of how the grandson of slaves became one of the wealthiest black men in the nation.
Trout of the World
In his junior year, Prosek wrote and illustrated a bestselling homage to trout. For anglers unable to get out on the water, this sequel is the next best thing to fishing.
Writing About Your Life: A Journey into the Past
The author of the classic text On Writing Well uses scenes from his own life—including an evocative look at his tenure in the 1970s as editor of the Yale Alumni Magazine and master of Branford College—to teach would-be memoirists the tricks of the trade.
John T. Bethell, Richard T. Hunt 1948 & Robert Shenton
Christiane Bird 1977
Sandra J. Bishop-Josef 1996, Assistant Director, Bush Center; Dorothy G. Singer, Senior Research Scientist in Psychology; & Edward F. Zigler, Sterling Professor Emeritus of Psychology; editors
Eva Brann 1956PhD
Richard L. Burger 1972, Professor of Anthropology, & Lucy C. Salazar, Project Manager, Peabody Museum, editors
James Campbell 1984
Ron Chernow 1970
Paula Marantz Cohen 1975
Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, Assistant Professor of English
R. Tripp Evans 1998PhD
Judith Farr 1965PhD
Leonard C. Feldman 1993
Philip Galanes 1984, 1991JD
Frank Gallinelli 1968
Alan S. Gerber 1986, Professor of Political Science, & Donald P. Green, the A. Whitney Griswold Professor of Political Science
Frederic Lawrence Holmes, Professsor Emeritus of the History of Medicine
Alan Holmes 1951
Robert Leland Johnson 1955
Jill Kargman 1995 & Carrie Karasyov
Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann 1970, 1970MA
Elizabeth Kolbert 1983
Jocelyn Lieu 1980
Ernest Lockridge 1964PhD & Laurel Richardson
Nick Manolukas 1984 & Heidi Neale
Mary Miller 1981PhD, Vincent Scully Professor of the History of Art, & Simon Martin
Edmund S. Morgan, Professor Emeritus of History
John S. Morgan 1943
Steve Olson 1978
Chandra Prasad 1997
Rebecca Rischin 1989, 1990MusM
Hampton Sides 1984
D. K. Smith 1976
Evelyn Savidge Sterne 1989
David Stowe 1993PhD
The Gems of Brazil
In 1863, peripatetic American landscape painter Martin Johnson Heade traveled to Brazil to capture its hummingbirds—avian miracles of design and color—on canvas. Heade developed paint-layering techniques to imitate the shimmering iridescence of the birds' plumage. The artist never completed his book on the hummingbirds of South America, but his paintings were eventually acquired by collector Richard Manoogian ’60, who loaned some of them to the Art Gallery for a display that runs through the end of June. Pictured above: amethyst woodstar.
Writer to Writer: A Century of American Literary Correspondence, 1850–1950
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
Writers such as Hawthorne, Melville, Wharton, and Eliot discuss their hopes, fears, problems, and successes as authors and as friends in letters drawn from the Yale Collection of American Literature.
The Mystery Plays
Yale Repertory Theatre
Award-winning playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa intertwines two seemingly random stories to explore the mysteries of death, the afterlife, faith, and forgiveness. The Mystery Plays will head to New York’s Second Stage Theatre after its run at Yale.
Twilight Commencement Concert
Yale Concert Band
The Yale Concert Band, directed by Thomas C. Duffy, performs traditional and ceremonial music in a free concert on the Old Campus.
Selections from the Joseph W. Reed Collection
Arts of the Book Collection
Joseph W. Reed '54, '61PhD, professor of English and American studies at Wesleyan and a self-taught artist, is known for his painting series such as First Ladies in Space! In honor of Reed’s 50th Yale reunion, his work is on display in the Sterling Library nave and the Arts of the Book exhibition cases.
Fossil Fragments: The Riddle of Human Origins
Peabody Museum of Natural History
A cavalcade of bronze skulls, a lifelike Neanderthal, a floor mural of an archeological site in Africa, and a reconstruction of “Turkana Boy,” the most complete early hominid skeleton known, are among the highlights of the Peabody’s recently opened exhibit about human evolution.
©1992–2012, Yale Alumni Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.
Yale Alumni Magazine, P.O. Box 1905, New Haven, CT 06509-1905, USA. email@example.com